Identity Systems Series: Color Theory

Color marks and brands just about everything we interact with, physically and digitally. While color selection can seem like an arbitrary choice, the science and psychology behind color theory is actually quite complex in nature. When leveraged from a human perspective, it can be a powerful asset in brand perception and voice.

Art Director Hannah Green and Front-End Designer & Developer Alexa Tuskey dive into color theory and its importance in building out a brand identity.

Q: How does color influence a brand’s voice and tone?
: Colors can say a lot about a brand, because of the subconscious messaging we see on a daily basis. Reds are often associated with energy and movement where blues tend to be linked with feelings of calm and trust. Choosing colors for your brand creates inherent and immediate associations with particular emotions.

Green: Color is so essential to creative projects, because it’s a huge part of human nature. The first thing people start recognizing and categorizing is color and its tones. Not only that, but color has the ability to evoke emotion without using words. Just choosing one color over another can make a significant statement. For example, direct competitors Coca Cola and Pespi use red and blue colors, respectively, which are opposites on the color wheel.

Q: How does color theory translate to digital practices?
: Digital has given us as designers a lot more options in how we apply color. Unlike print, the avenues for animations, different types of displays and particular effects can be totally different and innovative. The application of color itself changes in a digital landscape.

Green: There are two ways to think about this: scientifically and conceptually. The way the brain receives color information through digital is different than in print because of all the applications Alexa mentioned, as well as the range of hues and tones that exist digitally. Conceptually, digital technology is evolving to heighten these abilities. Samsung released a commercial with one billion colors to advertise its newest retina screen technology. One billion colors. That’s just not possible in print, where colors are made by mixing inks.

Q: What sort of considerations do you take into account when choosing a color palette for a brand?
: While it’s true there are only seven colors in the rainbow, a company can differentiate their palettes using varied hues and values. When deciding on a palette, you really need to consider what your company represents and what it wants to be in the long term.

Of course, we always have to consider things like accessibility and whether or not we’re working with a global brand. So, it’s a matter of balancing creativity and differentiation with the logistical side of design.

Green: It’s very rare that a client comes to us with absolutely no brand color as a starting point. So, more often than not, it’s not about starting from the ground up to build out a palette for any one company. It’s about refining an identity to better differentiate yourself in your competitive landscape.

We have a client right now that is perceived as a strong leader in it’s industry, so they chose a bold red color to emphasize confidence and strength. Another more traditional firm uses soft blues and golds to reflect a strong moral value, trust and loyalty.

Q: How can brands take calculated risks with color?
: Because most clients come to us with a starting point (a base color), we like to draw upon complimentary colors to add depth to a palette in an unexpected way. These complimentary colors can be placed strategically throughout a site to add dimension and interest without taking away from the main branding components.

Green: It really is about the little details. You don’t need a crazy rainbow palette. It’s about strategically placing color in ways that delight users.

Q: What are some of your favorite tools when creating color palettes?
: Contrast ratio tools can be really helpful when considering accessibility. There’s also Kuler and great inspiration blogs. Another trick is to see what a color looks like in several different mediums by looking it up on Pinterest. There you’ll see the color on all kinds of mediums, showing different textures and applications. This can help designers really get an overarching understanding of the color to envision what it represents.

Q: What sort of color trends are you seeing on the horizon into next year?
: Gradients have made their way back in a big way. What’s old is new again. I think that adding depth to sites is really where this comes from. Texture is a big part of adding depth, too. Using matte or holographic applications creates new experiences for each color. People are bored of flat design, so using color to strategically add depth is something we’ll be seeing a lot of in the near future.

Green: Interestingly enough, I feel like there are two “buckets” of trends right now. The first is this idea that people want to “see truth” in their products. They want the organic, non-died, subtle and low-saturation look. It’s a bit of a reflection of the political climate, as people want transparency in how their products are made, what their candidates are doing and what their companies invest in. The associated trend is natural, soft colors and a feeling of earthiness.

The second trend highlights vibrant colors, like electric blues and lime greens – pretty much the opposite of organics. This is because digital keeps pressing forward and the technology is allowing designers to take advantage of a broader spectrum of color. There’s more impactful, vibrant design options (even my nail polish is holographic!) to incorporate into digital.

Green and her holographic nails. 

Q: Any last pieces of advice to give to people considering their brand’s color palettes?
Tuskey: It’s important to remember that you sometimes need to disconnect yourself from your personal preferences of color. Color can be especially subjective, so always remember that a company’s palette is reflective of its identity, not your personal taste.

Green: It’s often overlooked that color can be much more than on a flat screen. Think of ways to leverage photography, texture, shadows and special effects that organically weave into a brand identity. Most importantly, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you choose colors considered “safe” and similar to competitors.

Color can be the one piece of a brand that is always remembered, so make sure your selection is intelligent and interesting.

It is important to remember the human connection that color creates, and leveraging that connection makes a huge impact on brand perception and identity. Whether that is through choosing an accessible palette, creating a strong differentiation from competitors, or even delving into on-trend gradient and transparent hues, the most current and progressive brands are perceiving the taste and values of their client base and establishing trust and positive association with them. This leads to stronger brand loyalty, a more dominant presence in a particular industry, and a wider and more diverse client base.


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Hannah Green Art Director

At the time of publishing, Hannah was an Art Director at One North.

Alexa Tuskey Senior Front-End Designer & Developer

As a Senior Front-End Designer & Developer at One North, Alexa creates innovative and engaging digital designs for clients and One North marketing materials through creative insight and cross-department collaboration. Alexa brings an open-mind, an unbeatable attention to detail and fearless creativity to her role at One North. She enjoys being able to help her clients tell their story by interpreting their vision and bringing it to life within functional and creative designs.

  • Fun fact: I did my senior thesis on the evolution of hip hop music.
  • What did you want to be when you were little: The President of the United States

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